The History of Herbal Supplements

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The History of Herbal Supplements – Nature’s Medicine

Herbs and plants have been used for millenia to improve health. Plants that have demonstrated beneficial effects include herbs, roots, cacti, mushrooms, trees, succulents, seeds, flowers and mosses.
Herbal ingredients are used in nutritional supplements, Chinese medicine, cosmetics, perfumes, herbal remedies and in many health foods and beverages.
Throughout the years, herbs have often been misunderstood. Some were thought to have magical properties. Later these superstitions were proven to be false. Other herbs were ignored as being useless, and now modern medical science is finding that these compounds really do have effects on the body.

Prehistoric Era

The oldest herb in history may be ginkgo biloba. Fossils from the Paleozoic era tell us that the ginkgo biloba tree has been on earth for millions of years.
Prehistoric tribes of hunter-gatherers would include in their diet any berries, leaves, roots, mushrooms, cacti, seeds, herbs or any parts of any plants that were found to be edible.
Over many millennia, various herbs and plants were chewed, made into teas, pounded into pastes, made into oils, gargles and snuffs, and added to various foods and drinks.
Before the invention of writing, knowledge was passed from word of mouth. Often a wise woman or medicine man would act as a tribe’s prehistoric equivalent of a doctor.
Over the eons of time, effects of herbs were learned by trial and error. Some plants, such as the hemlock tree, were found to be poison. Herbs such as valerian roots were found to make a person drowsy, while other herbs such as tea, contained caffeine and would help people to feel more awake.
Somewhere along the way in history, white willow bark was boiled in water and made into a tea that somehow helped relieve aches and pains and lower fevers. In recent times it was discovered that this tree bark contained salicin, which was later synthesized into acetesalicylic acid, better known as aspirin. Today aspirin has become the number one selling over the counter remedy around the world.

Ancient Babylon

An ancient Babylonian burial site that was discovered by archeologists contained various preserved medicinal herbs, including marshmallow root. These are thought to be some 60,000 years old and are the oldest intact examples of herbal remedies. In ancient cultures, people were often buried with treasures and items that would help them in the afterlife.
In later eras, Babylonians recorded their medical uses for herbs onto clay tablets in cuneiform writing. Tablets have been found dating from around 2600 B.C. that record the uses for honey, poppy juice, essential oil of cypress and cedar, myrrh, licorice and other remedies which today are used every day by people all around the world.


Some of the oldest and most complete written records about the use of herbs as supplements were recorded thousands of years ago in Egyptian hieroglyphics. The most famous of these writings is known as the Papyus Ebers, which note the medicinal uses of over 700 herbs and plants. Many of the herbs recorded in this document back in 1500 B.C. are still in use today, aloe vera being one well-known example.
The Egyptians buried their Pharaohs with all kinds of earthly possession. Three thousand-year-old seed corn found in Egyptian tombs was made to sprout and grow. There are still many tombs that might be found and studied. More writings and possibly some preserved herbal remedies could one day be exhumed.


Chinese medicine is famous for its extensive use of herbs and plants. For over five thousand years, Chinese herbalists have used ginkgo biloba tree leaves, ginseng roots, Cordyceps mushrooms, teas and many other herbs and health tonics to support good health.
China has the longest history of continuous use and learning about medicinal herbs. The first recorded Chinese herbal study, called Ben Cao, is believed to have been written around 2000 B.C. by Emperor Shen Nong. The Emperor studied and wrote about over 300 plants and herbal remedies.
In Chinese medicine, doctors are oftentimes only paid for successfully helping people to maintain good health, not for trying to fix their problems after they are ill. Their philosophy is to focus on the yin and the yang balance of the entire body, rather than only treat an individual body part.
In Asia, thousands of pharmacists and doctors prescribe herbal remedies every day. Herbal supplements have been an accepted way of life for all of the know history in this part of the world.


In early times, herbs and spices were so valuable that their trade was one of the first forms of organized commerce. India played an important part in the herb and spice trade.
In India, the study of medicinal herbs has been ongoing since around 2000 B.C. and is known as Ayurveda which means the “science of life”.
The herb Gotu kola has been used to help memory throughout the history of India. Gymnema sylvestre leaves have been used to help diabetics and dieters overcome sugar cravings.


In the first century AD, the Greek physician Dioscorides made a thorough record of the medicinal uses of over 500 herbs and plants. This record, named De Materia Medica, informed and influenced herbalists for centuries afterward.
The famous Greek physician Hypocrites is considered the forefather of medicine. Hypocrites said “Let your food be your medicine” and his treatments often included herbs.


Herbal remedies were widely used in the Roman Empire, including crushed mint leaves, basil, oregano and mandrake herb. Other early uses of plants in Rome were for the poisoning of political opponents, and for antidotes to poisons.
The Roman emperor Nero created a kind of cure-all potion which remained in use for over 2000 years and may have been the first “patent medicine.”
Much of the Roman knowledge was lost when libraries and schools were destroyed by warfare. Many years later, Italy would be home to the first standardized dosage of ingredients. A pharmacopoeia called the Nuovo Receptario was published around 1500 and became a standard for pharmacists of the time.

The Middle Ages

After the fall of the Western Roman Empire, during the “dark ages,” much of the learning and culture of European civilizations was lost. While barbarians ravaged the continent, monks and scribes in Ireland and Spain hand-copied books and written works
Most monasteries also had gardens where Monks grew medicinal herbs. The liquor named Benedictine contains 27 herbs, plants & spices and was thought to be a health elixir. It is named after the religious Benedictine monks that invented it.

The Americas

Native North Americans used black cohosh for women’s symptoms of menstruation, and now modern scientists have found it to offer an estrogen-like effect upon hormones.
In Peru, the bark of the cinchona tree proved useful against malaria and later became the source of quinine sulfate. The two French pharmacists who worked to isolate this much needed remedy could have patented it and enjoyed a millionaire monopoly. Instead they released their findings freely to the world in the name of good medicine. These young, unsung heroes whose work has saved untold numbers of lives from disease were named Joseph-Bienaime Caventou and Pierre-Joseph Pelletier.

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